Saturday, March 31, 2012

The City Dark: "What does it mean to lose the night?"

If you live in a city or a suburb, chances are you don’t see many stars, even on a clear night. No matter where you live, you almost certainly see fewer stars now than you would have 25 or 50 years ago.

What do we lose when we lose the night? Filmmaker Ian Cheney, co-creator of the award-winning documentary King Corn, asked himself that question after moving from rural Maine to Brooklyn, New York and realizing that he could no longer see more than a handful of stars in the night sky. An inability to observe stars and planets at night caused by human sources of illumination is one definition of light pollution.

No surprise, Cheney’s journey to answer his question takes the form of another documentary. The City Dark considers the short history of artificial light (“We've evolved, all life on the planet for 3 billion years, with a reliable daily cycle of 12 hours of bright, broad-spectrum light and 12 hours of dark,” says one of the film’s experts. “It's only been the last 120 years where masses of people have had their dark period dramatically eroded by the use of electric light.); the effects of light pollution on birds, sea turtles, and night-shift workers; and how the benefits of light at night can be maintained without creating light pollution.

When Virgil and I sat down to watch the 58-minute classroom version (there’s also an 83-minute version), I didn’t know how long the documentary would hold the attention of a fidgety fourth-grader. But he was immediately drawn into Cheney’s quest. He was shocked that astronomy students on Staten Island were able to see only the very brightest stars and planets in New York City’s light-polluted skies. He asked me to stop the film after a segment that showed baby sea turtles traveling toward lighted parking lots and strip malls — and death — and away from the ocean. A biologist had explained that sea turtles had evolved over many millions of years to seek out the ocean by its ability to reflect back the night sky. “I don’t like that,” Virgil said, burrowing his face in my side.

But he wanted to keep watching. When the film was done, he hugged me for a long moment. “I’m glad we have a night sky,” he said.

Later, I found a map that showed the spread of light pollution over much of the United States over the past 50 years. I’d like to think that I can locate our small dark-sky spot in central New Hampshire on the most recent map. After seeing The City Dark, I feel lucky to step outside our door any clear night and see thousands of stars — and newly aware of what
s lost on the other side of a big citys bright lights.

An organization called GLOBE at Night has been creating global light-pollution maps since 2005 by enlisting citizen-scientists to make nighttime observations. The final dates in this year’s effort are April 11-20. The organization is hoping for 15,000 observations; just under 10,000 were made in first three months of 2012.

Learn more

- … about The City Dark. The film is being shown at Quinnipiac University in Hamden Connecticut, on April 2; at the Catamount Arts Center in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, on April 12; and at the Philadelphia Science Festival April 20-29.

- … about the 2012 GLOBE at Night effort. The website includes downloadable teacher and family activity packets.

- … about alternative outdoor lighting options and light pollution ordinances from the International Dark Sky Association.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

“Pollution, pollution”: Air quality rules that would protect kids’ health are threatened

“Pollution, pollution,” Virgil warbles in tandem with Tom Lehrer, the musical parodist from the 1960s, coming into our kitchen on YouTube. I remember the satirical song from my own childhood and sing along: “Wear a gas mask and a veil. / Then you can breathe, long as you don’t inhale.”

I’m somewhat surprised that Virgil knows Tom Lehrer’s music. For that, I can thank his science teacher. She played Lehrer’s “Elements” song to the fourth grade while they were learning the elements, and Virgil and several of his friends searched out other Lehrer songs online. “Pollution” is one of his favorites. I think he’s fascinated by the picture it paints of an America quite different from the one he knows, in which rivers burn and cities are beset by killing vapors. “This was before the Clean Air Act in 1970,” he informs me, as if describing a bygone civilization.

That history has felt close to me lately, as I’ve become aware of efforts to overturn a landmark extension of the Clean Air Act known as Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS. The Environmental Protection Agency adopted the standards in December 2011, following a 21-year drafting and review process. The rules set national limits on the amounts of mercury and other toxic metals that could be emitted from coal- and oil-fired power plants. A number of officials from the affected industries came out in favor of the new guidelines as a way of re-leveling the playing field for the majority of power plants that have voluntarily refitted to reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants, including heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, and nickel.

Power plants are the largest source of U.S. mercury emissions to the air. Mercury is a known neurotoxin and carcinogen that is especially dangerous to children, damaging children’s developing nervous systems and reducing their ability to think and learn. Mercury is implicated in lower IQs in children and increased rates of childhood asthma.

This much I already knew. What I didn’t know until recently is how easily the historic new standards can be overturned. On February 16, the MATS standards were posted in the Federal Register, triggering a countdown of 60 legislative days until they would go into effect. Almost immediately, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced a resolution to eliminate the MATS standards. If Congress approved Inhofe’s resolution, not only would the MATS rules be nullified but the Environmental Protection Agency would be barred from ever issuing a standard that is “substantially the same.”

That last part is very important, so let me describe it more fully: Under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which was created as part of the 1996 “Contract for America,” if Inhofe’s resolution passed, the EPA would be legally prohibited from bringing those standards, or any standards similar to them, back to Congress — not just during the current session but at any future time.

I learned about the danger to the new standards in an online discussion of the issue by a group called the Moms Clean Air Force. Other organizations, including AMC, are fighting to allow the new air standards to go into effect. Last week 12 Eastern states, including all 6 New England states, filed a motion in support of the new standards — not surprising, perhaps, when you consider that the Northeast has long been called “the tailpipe of the country.”

One of the mothers who participated in the online discussion said of the officials and industry groups who are trying to kill the new standards, “They’re banking on us not speaking up, even though we bear the costs and they get the profits.” She urged parents, anyone concerned about the environment, and anyone who cares about fair industry practices to prove them wrong.

Tom Lehrer described the alternative: “Like lambs to the slaughter / They’re drinking the water / And breathing — cough, cough — the air.”

Learn more

- The Moms Clean Air Force website contains information about the current EPA standards, childhood asthma, air quality and pollution in all 50 states, and calls to action.

- Follow the online audio discussion, “Mom to Mom: The Controversy Over Clean Air,” on the Moms Clean Air Force site.

- Read about AMC’s efforts to teach hikers about the effects of air pollution in the White Mountains.

- Hear Tom Lehrer sing “Pollution.”

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks

Here in central New Hampshire, as we step into official spring, the forecast calls for a string of 70-degree days and nights above freezing. Buds are opening up on the sugar maple trees, and the sap has stopped running. It’s time to pull our taps. The snow that held on through this nearly snowless winter is quickly melting out under the warm sun.

Over the weekend, Ursula and a friend waded in the shallows opening up around the shore of the pond. Only a week ago, we skied in loops over thick, snow-covered ice, but it’s not safe to do that now. During the 14 years we’ve lived here, April 1 is the earliest we’ve been able to swim in the pond (that is, if you’re part polar bear, as Ursula and Virgil seem to be). This year, we’re likely to break that ice-out record by a week or more.

Ursula clearly enjoyed her weekend outside. But on Sunday night, as we prepared for the school week, she confided a sense of unease. The early spring felt “weird” to her, not quite right. She asked, “Is this climate change?”

The question of climate change, and what that change means for today’s children, suffuses every page of a new book, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, by Michael Lanza (Beacon Press, April 3). Lanza may be familiar to you from his work for AMC Outdoors during the 1990s or from The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel (AMC Books, 1999). He now lives in Boise, Idaho, where he is the Northwest editor of Backpacker Magazine. Not surprisingly, he’s brought up son Nate and daughter Alex, ages 11 and 9, to be comfortable in a tent and on a trail.

In 2007, an assignment for Backpacker took Lanza to Glacier National Park, where he skied along the Continental Divide with research scientist Dan Fagre. For more than two decades, Fagre had measured snow depth and other indicators of the park’s alpine climate. Fagre’s measurements showed that the glaciers for which the park was named — 150 in the middle of the nineteenth century — were rapidly disappearing. When Lanza visited, just 27 glaciers remained in the park, most of these diminished to snowfields.

“That story assignment ignited a personal interest in the impacts of global warming on the natural world,” Lanza writes in the book’s introduction. His personal interest immediately included his children: “My kids’ formative years will roughly coincide with our society’s maturation on climate change; they were born around the time that we finally began to widely acknowledge its impacts, and they will reach adulthood as we are likely to begin witnessing its full fallout.” So he organized a year-long adventure, taking his family — Nate and Alex, then 9 and 7, and wife Penny Beach — to 11 of the country’s most endangered parks.

A good portion of the resulting book reminds those of us who love wild nature what it’s like to experience it for the first time. As Alex and Nate zip down snowfields and marvel at rock canyons, we share their glee and their awe. Lanza is a fine writer and an excellent observer both of nature and of family life, but he expands beyond a family adventure travelogue to chronicle the many ways in which climate change affects the nation’s most extraordinary natural places. In doing so, he has written a heartbreaking, compelling story.

I consider myself reasonably familiar with many of the parks that Lanza and his family visited. But I was stunned by Lanza’s accounts — based on extensive reading and interviews with scientists — of how global warming, ocean acidification, and changing weather patterns have already affected these national resources, and will affect them even more dramatically in coming decades. A small sample of the dismaying details:

- “Snowfall has declined measurably for decades in virtually all parts of the world that receive it. In the Sierra, snow melts out and streams reach peak runoff two to four weeks earlier than a half century ago.” (from the Yosemite chapter)

- “Ocean surface water is now 30 percent more acidic than it had been in the past 25 million years, and is going through the fastest shift in chemistry since the time of dinosaurs” — a shift that Britain’s Royal Society calls “essentially irreversible.” (from the Glacier Bay chapter)

- “No major U.S. national park is more vulnerable to sea-level rise than Everglades. Most of the park would be inundated by an ocean rise of two feet. … But many researchers now project the ocean rising by three to six feet.” (from the Everglades chapter)

Lanza wisely keeps Nate and Alex out of most of the environmental science and lets them simply be kids enjoying the outdoors. Nate is fascinated by weaponry of all kinds, hoping for a chance meeting with a bear so they can deploy their pepper spray and drawing his father into endless discussions of Star Wars gadgetry. Alex insists on playing her favorite number game for hours at a time. Beloved stuffed animals accompany them on their travels. (When I spoke with Lanza earlier this month, he told me that his children were never bored in the outdoors. “They get bored at home and on the playground,” he said. On their trip, “they were entertained all day.”) It doesn’t take long, however, to realize that each new adventure introduces more distressing data. The tension between the family idyll and the looming environmental catastrophe can feel almost unbearable.

Lanza masterfully deploys that uncomfortable tension to make the book's key emotional points. Throughout the book, he quotes from one painful prediction after another. Dan Fagre, the research scientist from Glacier National Park, tells him, “The glaciers in the park are undoubtedly going to disappear”; climate models show that happening by around 2020. Lanza could sense despair — “palpable and unavoidable” — in every scientist he spoke with for the book. But his hopes were buoyed by those conversations, as well: “Each could point to a reason for hope.”

Lanza makes it clear that as a parent he has an obligation to face the facts of climate change. The science tells him that his children’s children will already grow up in a very different world. But he believes that there’s still time to alter the arc of that change, to keep several generations’ worth of choices from creating a long-lasting global environmental catastrophe.

His optimism extends to New England and to AMC. “People in New England understand what this issue is about,” he said. He could have included a chapter in his book on plants and animals in the alpine zones of the White Mountains that are endangered by climate change. He knows that the large population centers of the Northeast have the potential to use their collective voice to drive policy and lead the way on climate change. “We have to be unafraid to speak up about what’s most important to us,” he said. “We’re always telling children, ‘Assume responsibility.’ “We need to practice what we preach.”

Reading Lanza’s book helped me answer Ursula’s anxious question the other night. I explained that there are seasonal variations, but that yes, winter is not lasting as long in New England, on average, as it did 40 years ago, and yes, this is the result of global warming. She turned back to her homework, leaving me to sit with my own sense of unease.

"The great challenge about dealing with climate change,” Lanza told me at the start of our conversation, “is that it feels hopeless. But to be hopeless is to give up on a future.” As he writes in Before They’re Gone, he embraces optimism, “for the sake of my children.”

Learn more

- Before They’re Gone will be published on April 3. Learn more about the book and Lanza at TheBigOutside.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

10 Easy Outdoor Activities with Kids

Need some fresh ideas for outdoor fun with your kids? Here are a few free or low-cost suggestions gathered from AMC experts. Most are evergreen activities that will work well in any season. (See my list from last month for even more ideas.)

1. Listen up. Ask your kids to sit quietly outside, close their eyes, and listen to the different sounds around them for a set time (try one minute). How many sounds did they hear? Were they all made by people?

2. Go birding. Bring binoculars and a birding guidebook on your next walk and try to identify what you see. For younger kids, two toilet-paper tubes taped together (or a paper towel tube cut in half and taped) make a great set of “binoculars” for them to practice with, even though the tubes won’t magnify anything. (To read about baby birds and spring, with a link to the classic children’s book Are You My Mother?, see “A Bird’s Eye View of Spring.”)

3. Get starry-eyed. Head out at night with a guide to the stars (and maybe some hot chocolate). Read legends about the constellations at bedtime. (See “Fun after dark” for more nighttime outdoor activities with kids.)

4. Examine the insects. Make a simple bug cage by washing out an empty plastic peanut butter jar and poking holes in the lid (or use plastic berry or salad containers). Invite some insects inside for observation, and let them go their own way once you’ve had a look.

5. Make tree bark and leaf rubbings. Hold a piece of paper to the trunk of a tree with rough bark (or put on top of a fallen leaf placed on a hard surface), then rub with the side of a crayon. The pattern of the bark or leaf will appear on the page.

6. Send Superheroes outside. If your Superman or Wonder Girl likes to play in costume, send him or her on outdoor missions.

7. Match colors. Pick up a set of paint swatches at your local hardware or home improvement store, then ask your kids to find something outdoors in each color on your next outing.

8. Volunteer. Help a local park group to plant flowers, donate toys for the sandbox, or assist with events. If your local park doesn’t have such an organization, consider starting your own.

9. Find the spot. Devise a local treasure hunt with a hand-made map, or practice your more formal map and compass or GPS skills.

10. Build Fairy Houses. Construct tiny homes from fallen sticks, twigs, leaves, rocks, and other natural materials, without disturbing living plants.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Heather wrote this post.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

More tips on hiking the Appalachian Trail with kids

I recently put together a list of 10 kid-friendly hikes on the Appalachian Trail (AT), plus 3 additional AT hikes that start from AMC huts or lodges in the White Mountains. But there are many other family-friendly options on the trail, which covers nearly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine.

Former AMC Outdoors Senior Editor Karen Ingraham has explored the AT with her daughter, Mabel, now 2 years old, since shortly after Mabel was born. Not every section of the long trail includes good options for shorter hikes, baby backpacks, or for small legs, but Ingraham has developed some simple guidelines for finding child-friendly hikes on the AT. Her tips will help you and your children find your own favorite stretches of the trail.

- Look for easy access. “Many segments of the AT are not readily accessible from the road,” Ingraham notes. Look for places where the trail crosses a road or where a short spur trail can bring you to the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.
- Consider the grade and terrain. Before she had Mabel, Ingraham says, “I’d hike anything.” Now, however, she considers the steepness of the trail — both for her benefit, in case she’s carrying Mabel on her back, and for how well Mabel can navigate the trail. The Appalachian Trail is generally well maintained over its length, and it’s generally easy to locate maps and trail descriptions for every section.
- Choose kid-friendly summits or destinations. For Ingraham, “kid-friendly” often means enough surface area for Mabel to explore safely, such as large slabs of rock and broad tabletop summits. “We have hiked up to viewpoints that have drop-offs,” she says, “but generally, we seek out end points where, with supervision, Mabel can get out and enjoy her surroundings.”
- Keep it short. Children may be excited to hike the Appalachian Trail, especially if they see thru-hikers, but resist the temptation to keep going. Remember that unless you’re getting on the trail at either of its end-points, Springer Mountain or Katahdin, you’re not anywhere near “the end.”

Ingraham is looking forward to exploring more sections of the Appalachian Trail with Mabel again this hiking season. They’ll be joined by a child who will be getting his first introduction to the pleasures of the famed trail: Mabel’s new little brother, Fergus.

Learn more
- The Appalachian Trail Conservancy helps maintain the Appalachian Trail over its length and is a clearinghouse of information about the trail
- AMC's White Mountain Guide, also available online, contains information about AT hikes in the White Mountains.
- Read "10 Great Appalachian Trail Hikes with Kids" on AMC's Great Kids, Great Outdoors.
- For another perspective on hiking the AT, read "Thru-hiking with a 10-year-old" and "Mother and son hike the AT: the son's story" in AMC's Great Kids, Great Outdoors.

Photo: Aidan at Shenandoah National Park, by Matthew Culbertson. Courtesy

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tracking Spring Flowers: A Kids' Science Project for A Cause

The crocuses are flowering in our yard, and daffodils will soon follow. They’re early because of this year’s warm winter. But what about native flowering plants, like red trillium, bloodroot (pictured), and trout lily?

Such plants can teach us—and our kids—important lessons about climate change, according to organizers of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Flower Watch program. The trends in flowering times for native plants, when followed over a number of years, provide insights into larger changes in our environment. And citizen scientists can help monitor the pace of change by gathering data about local plants.

Sound intimidating? It’s actually as easy as going for a walk in the woods with your kids.

Bring a simple checklist of local flowers to look for, and record your observations on citizen-science data forms, which come with a more detailed guidebook. Once you’re back home, you can upload your findings.

The Flower Watch program is looking for reports from AMC’s entire region, from Maine south to Washington, D.C. If you’re in northern New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, or Maine, you might be looking for hobblebush, bunchberry, and blue-bead lily instead of the flowers on my list in Massachusetts, but the basic method is the same.

If you find yourself with a rainy day or too little time to get to a trail, the website includes materials for kid-friendly activities you can do at home, including printable flower cards that are great for matching games and a booklet about flowers that includes space to draw flowers and fruit you find in your house or backyard.

Then plan to visit a local trail another day. After all, this is a fun, free way to:
* Learn more about local plants
* Get outdoors with your kids
* Help scientists monitor the pace of climate change
* And impress your friends!

If you and your family—or your scout troop or school group—get hooked, you can even sign up to adopt a peak or trail section, providing repeat data throughout the spring and summer.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Heather wrote this post.

Photos: Courtesy of Georgia Murray. (The boy is sitting surrounded by Canada mayflower.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

10 Great Appalachian Trail Hikes with Kids

If someone says “Appalachian Trail” to you, chances are you think of trail-hardened hikers carrying 40-pound packs, covering 15 or 20 miles a day on steep and gnarly paths, day after day after day. These are thru-hikers, the small number of people each year who hike all 2,170 miles of the trail between Georgia and Maine.

You probably don’t conjure up a picture of families carrying day packs and hiking moderate, easy-to-follow trails. But numerous spots along the trail offer opportunities for kid-friendly hikes. Try any of the following 10 day hikes in the AMC region to introduce your children to the joys of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Each hike has been selected for ease of access, walking, and navigation, and for destinations and other attractions that appeal to children, such as waterfalls and ice cream. All of the hikes are under 8 miles round-trip. Their level of difficulty ranges from short river walks to a challenging but moderate hike to a summit above treeline.

Most thru-hikers start in Georgia and hike north with the spring. We’re giving you the hikes below in “flip-flop” order, from north to south. That list of 10 hikes is followed by descriptions of 3 kid-friendly AT hikes in the White Mountains from AMC huts and lodges.


Where: Penobscot River and Baxter Ponds
What: Walks along a river and to tumbling cascades
Why we chose it: Two options for enjoying Maine’s wild water

The traditional end point of the Appalachian Trail is the summit of Katahdin, in Baxter State Park. These two hikes focus on another aspect of the Maine wilderness, its water. For one, follow the West Branch of the Penobscot River, where massive log drives once fed Bangor’s sawmills, north nearly 4 miles from Abol Campground on level ground. Or for a shorter hike on the same trail, traveling in the opposite direction, start inside Baxter State Park at Daicey Pond Campground and walk south less than a mile downhill to thundering Big Niagara Falls and a rock overlook.

New Hampshire
Where: Mount Moosilauke
What: The first summit above treeline on the northbound AT
Why we chose it: A classic introduction to alpine hiking

Northbound thru-hikers consider Mount Moosilauke (4,802 feet) on the southwestern edge of the White Mountains the first truly alpine summit on the AT. White blazes mark the Glencliff Trail up to South Peak and on to the summit. The roundtrip is 7.8 miles and 3,300 feet of elevation gain — a full day with young hikers — and should not be attempted in poor or uncertain weather. Nonetheless, the moderate grade and nearby Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, which offers rooms and cabins for rent and family-style dining in season, make it a favorite with families ready to tackle the higher ranges.

Where: Little Rock Pond
What: A classic Green Mountain hike to a mountain pond
Why we chose it: Granite boulders, swimming, and fishing

For 95 of the AT’s 146 miles in Vermont, it shares the path with the Long Trail, which covers the length of the state. This hike on the shared trail is 2 gentle miles to one of the most-loved of the mountain lakes in the Green Mountains, which makes it a perfect AT hike for children. Alas, it’s perfect for nearly everyone else, too, so don’t expect a wilderness experience. Little Rock Pond, elevation 1850 feet, is stocked with trout; there are several camping options at the pond.


Where: Upper Goose Pond between Tyringham and Becket
What: A pristine pond in the heart of the Berkshires
Why we chose it: So many options — a day hike, a paddle, an overnight, part of a stay in the Berkshires

Upper Goose Pond is tucked between two state parks (October Mountain and Beartown) and only a mile from Interstate 90, but 700 acres around the pond is protected as part of the Appalachian Trail corridor. The 0.5-mile spur trail to the pond can be reached from the north (begin at a trail crossing at US 20) in 2.5 miles, and from the south in 2.7 miles, starting from Goose Pond Road. A seasonal thru-hikers’ cabin at the northern end of the pond is staffed by AMC Berkshire Chapter volunteers; tent platforms are open to other hikers. The upper pond is easily accessed from the more developed lower pond, opening up the possibility of two groups covering the distance to the cabin on foot and by paddle and switching for the return. The cabin, which has been called “the Hilton of Huts,” makes a good destination even if you’re not spending the night. Or picnic on the lawn and watch a performance at nearby Jacob’s Pillow, one of the country’s most prestigious summer dance festivals.

Where: Housatonic River near Kent
What: A river ramble
Why we chose it: The longest flat section on the AT

This level path along the Housatonic River is also the AT’s longest river walk, according to the authors of AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Connecticut. RenĂ© Laubach and Charles W. G. Smith recommend a 3-mile section along an old roadbed, especially when the wildflowers are in bloom. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy suggests a 1-mile loop. A great introduction to the Appalachian Trail for small children, with water play as an option all along the path.

New York
Where: Bear Mountain State Park and Harriman State Park
What: A summit hike
Why we chose it: The “Lemon Squeezer” on some of the first AT trail miles ever built.

In April 1922, six months after regional planner Benton MacKaye first proposed the building of the Appalachian Trail, members of the New York – New Jersey Trail Conference scouted possible trails in Bear Mountain and Harriman state parks. The trail up from the Ramapo Valley to the summit of Island Pond Mt. (4.0 miles roundtrip, 550 feet elevation gain) includes 2 of the first 6 miles of the AT ever blazed. It also includes the “Lemon Squeezer,” a narrow passage through split rock a tenth of a mile from the summit. If the squeeze is too much, make lemonade with an easy bypass to the top.

New Jersey
Where: Wawayanda State Park
What: A level loop hike on a wild plateau
Why we chose it: Rhododendron and hemlock groves, a lake, and ruins

About 20 miles of the Appalachian Trail run through 34,000-acre Wawayanda State Park in northern New Jersey. The park incorporates both recent history (a preserved 19th-century mountain farm and old iron mines) and ancient history, in some of the oldest bedrock along the length of the AT. The New York – New Jersey Trail Conference recommends a 6.0-mile loop on the AT and several side trails. The loop passes through thick groves of hemlock and rhododendron, skirts the shoreline of Wawayanda Lake, and passes ruins of the Wawayanda iron furnace.


Where: Pine Grove Furnace State Park
What: A summit hike
Why we chose it: History and the AT’s halfway point

From Pine Grove Furnace State Park, the summit of Piney Mountain, elevation 1450 feet, makes a fine day hike, at 7.6-miles roundtrip. For thru-hikers, an even more important point comes at 1.8 miles along the trail: a sign and trail register marking the halfway point of the AT. The trail also intersects with various points in American history. Next to the park, the Ironmaster’s Mansion, now a youth hostel, is said to have operated as a stop on the underground railroad, where a false floor in a first-floor closet hid fleeing slaves. Ice cream, including the thru-hiker’s “half-gallon,” is available at the park’s general store; the Appalachian Trail Museum is just across the street.

Where: Crampton Gap
What: Pleasant ridgetop walk south or north
Why we chose it: Civil War history and historic Harpers Ferry

Out-and-back hikes heading north or south from a mountain gap offer pleasant ridgetop walks and Civil War history. To the north, a gentle 700-foot ascent leads to the ridge and White Rocks, whose quartzite cliffs are a pleasant lunch spot and turnaround point for a 7.0-mile roundtrip. To the south, an even mellower 250-foot climb leads to a “green tunnel” along the ridgeline of South Mt., site of an important Civil War battle. You can follow the trail all 9.8 miles to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and home to several museums. Or turn around before a steep descent of Weverton Cliffs begins at 5.8 miles.

Where: Big Flat Mountain, Shenandoah National Park
What: A child-friendly introduction to the AT
Why we chose it: Easy access, gentle terrain, and numerous loop and side-trail options

For the approximately 100 miles that the Appalachian Trail runs through Shenandoah National Park, it seldom strays more than a mile from Skyline Drive, the park’s main road. This makes for unusually easy access to the trail, and dozens of blue-blazed side trails make for a completely customizable hiking experience. To take advantage of the numerous opportunities, stay at Loft Mtn. Campground, where the AT follows along the edge of the campground. A 3.4-mile roundtrip hike south from the campground takes you to the Doyles River gorge; hiking north from the campground (between 4 and 5 miles roundtrip) takes you to Big Flat Mountain’s spectacular overlooks.

3 AT Hikes from AMC Huts and Lodges

In the White Mountains, the Appalachian Trail traverses high ridgelines and summits, and rarely descends into the valleys for road crossings. The hiking is spectacular, but it is strenuous and can be dangerous in poor conditions. The following hikes give you a taste of the Appalachian Trail from several AMC huts and lodges in the White Mountains.

- From Joe Dodge Lodge: Lost Pond Trail. Pick up the AT on the Lost Pond Trail right from Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and head east, toward the summits of Wildcat Ski Area. You’ll reach Lost Pond in 0.5 mile and the intersection with the Wildcat Ridge Trail at 0.9 mile. Turn back before the trail steepens for a lovely 1.8-mile roundtrip day hike, but don’t forget to look across to Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range.
- From Lonesome Lake Hut. Chances are, you’ll have hiked into Lonesome Lake Hut on the gently ascending Lonesome Lake Trail. Once you reach the hut, you’re on the AT. Consider a side trip into the Kinsman Range on Fishin’ Jimmy Trail to Kinsman Pond, a 4.0-mile roundtrip on the AT from Lonesome Lake Hut.
- From AMC’s Highland Center or Mizpah Spring Hut. Reach the AT at Mizpah Spring Hut following the Crawford Path and Mizpah Cutoff (5.2 miles roundtrip). A 1.8-mile roundtrip hike to the summit of Mt. Pierce (4,310 feet), just to the north of the hut, offers a fine introduction to the Presidential Range.

Photos: Mt. Moosilauke from Patricia Ellis Herr's blog about hiking the NH 4,000ers with her 5-year-old daughter. Herr has written a book, Up, about their experiences, due out in April 2012. The AT in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York ( NJ and NY photos from "And for poorer").

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Is Your Playground Breeding Nervous Wimps?

Today’s playgrounds are so safe that kids find them boring, according to a recent study in Pediatrics.

Equipment meant to reduce injuries may actually be reducing physical activity, and thereby boosting childhood obesity, claims a related article in The Atlantic.

Boring playgrounds may also be creating more fearful youngsters, psychologists tell The New York Times: Without enough opportunities to achieve mastery over physical challenges, children may become more anxious—or they may seek thrills in more dangerous settings.

This is, of course, bad news. We don’t want to raise a generation of obese, risk-averse couch potatoes, or send kids from overprotected playgrounds to less safe play spaces. But some people seem to think the solution is simply to go back to the days of sky-high jungle gyms and head-banging teeter-totters.

My guess is that the challenge is more complex. Safe does not have to mean boring. And fun does not have to mean dangerous. Active childhood play also doesn’t have to rely on static playground equipment. My 2-year-old will spend some blissful moments in a swing, but then is off inventing other games with sand, water, and toys (from cars to kitchen sets) that other families leave behind in neighborhood parks.

The research study itself (which focused on day care centers) didn’t put all the blame on equipment. It found that parents and staff at the centers weren’t encouraging more active play because of concerns about injury, financial constraints (which limited the purchase of interesting play structures), and a focus on academics.

Here are a few ways that communities are encouraging more active childhood play, without returning to old playground models:

1. Making time and space for kids to play outdoor games—and even teaching traditional games like crab soccer to children who may be more familiar with iPhone apps. (The nonprofit KaBoom, dedicated to promoting children’s play, posts community Play Day activities, including game rules.)

2. Creating more fun, interactive playground equipment that is safe, but engages the imagination. One approach is to build playgrounds with many “loose parts” that children can move around; another is to feature more inventive shapes that inspire role-playing and storytelling (like the work of Danish playground design group MONSTRUM, which includes the spider structure pictured here).

3. Creating natural schoolyards that invite exploration, making soil, plants, water, and other natural materials the focus of the play space. The playscape AMC is building at the Highland Center is one example of this movement.

Of course, swings and slides will likely still have a place in playgrounds, and in encouraging children to get outside. They’re certainly popular with my daughter, who isn’t old enough to know the word bored. But to keep children engaged in the outdoors, we need to provide time and support for more creative games and interaction with nature.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Heather wrote this post.

Illustration: iStock. Photo: Courtesy of MONSTRUM.

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